Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC and Justin Levinson acted for MAGA, who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest, Father Clonan, in Coventry in about 1976. At the time of the abuse MAGA, who has learning disabilties, was 12 years old. Father Clonan’s superior, Father McTernan, had been made aware that Fr Clonan was a sexual abuser of boys in 1974, but had not taken any action.
Elizabeth-Anne and Justin brought the claim and proved that the client was abused, but the trial judge refused to find liability because he accepted the Church’s argument that it was not liable for the abuse because MAGA was not a Roman Catholic, and therefore Father Clonan had no business having any dealings with him and was not doing so in his capacity as a priest. The case succeeded on appeal because the Court of Appeal accepted that a priest’s duties are very wide and involve him befriending non-Catholics, such as in the course of his evangelising role.
The case is important from a legal perspective as it is the first time the courts have considered the church’s liability for abuse by priests. The Church fought the case to the Court of Appeal believing clearly that since the claimant was not a Catholic it had no liability. The full judgment from the Court of Appeal can be read here.